Another religious accommodation controversy in Minneapolis:

Over the objections of the transit union, Minneapolis transit authorities have exempted a bus driver from operating a bus that carried a large external ad for a gay magazine. The full story is here. Excerpts:

A city bus driver who complained about a gay-themed ad got official permission not to drive any bus that carries that ad, according to an internal memo confirmed Tuesday by Metro Transit.

Transit authorities call it a reasonable accommodation to the driver's religious beliefs.

Amalgamated Transit Unit Local 1005 officials at the bus company say it condones intolerance; besides, drivers never have been excused from other buses carrying ads they found objectionable - from political candidates to pink bras.

Requests for religion-based considerations are increasingly in the news, as workplace observers say more Americans bring their faiths to their jobs. A bank in Otsego, Minn., declares itself to be a Christian bank, for example. Some pharmacists want the right to refuse to fill contraceptive prescriptions.

Also, many Muslim taxi drivers at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport refuse to accept passengers who are carrying alcohol.

The ad at the center of the Metro Transit flap is for Lavender, a local magazine for a GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered) audience. It runs periodically on 50 city buses and carries a photo of a young man with the slogan, ''Unleash Your Inner Gay.'' . . .

''Our diversity office determined that we could make a simple, reasonable accommodation on religious ground by not assigning her (the driver) to one of the 25 buses - out of 150 - at the Nicollet garage,'' Metro Transit spokesman Bob Gibbons said.

''The decision has nothing to do with the content of the advertisement,'' he said. ''It has everything to do with the employee's religious beliefs.''...

Gibbons has no slippery-slope worries. Future requests will follow the same civil-rights law applied in this case, which says employers must accommodate an employee's religious beliefs unless it brings ''undue business hardship,'' he said.

Michelle Sommers, Local 1005 president, isn't so sure.

''Our union tries to represent all diversity - whether it be religion, cultural, race, sexual orientation, any of that,'' she said. ''And if you start saying this or that ad is inappropriate, you're offending other people, and that can create a difficult environment for people to work in....

Driving a bus doesn't mean you endorse the ads that cover it, Sommers said.

''The company sells ads to make money, and we need that,'' said Sommers. ''But the union does not agree with the decision to allow drivers to pick which bus they drive based on an advertisement.''

As I've written here before, I generally support accommodations for sincere religious objectors, at least where the accommodation can be made at no more than trivial cost to other legitimate public interests. These other public interests include administrative burdens and hardship to the class of people protected by the law (e.g., an antidiscrimination law). I could support an exemption for Catholic Charities of Boston from Massachusetts' antidiscrimination law because nobody could demonstrate that the burden of the exemption on gay couples seeking adoption would be anything more than trivial. I don't count as a more-than-trivial cost the symbolic damage done to the public interest in having everyone comply with the state's command, regardless of their sincere religious objections. As the cost of accommodation rises, my willingness to grant them decreases.

In this case, the public interest would be largely administrative in nature and appears to be no more than trivial in magnitude. If half the force of bus drivers refused to drive these buses, it would be a different case. We have no reason to believe, on the facts we have, that the driver's religious objections are not sincere, or that they are part of an orchestrated campaign to drive gay-themed ads off the city's buses.

But for a generous policy of accommodations to work in a diverse society, we must have some reasonable self-restraint on the part of potential objectors. I have seen the ads in question on buses around Minneapolis. The picture of the young man is not lewd, or even suggestive. It's far less sexual in nature than other ads I've seen on the sides of buses. The gay magazine it advertises is not pornographic; it covers news, arts, and entertainment. Nobody believes that bus drivers endorse the messages or products in the ads on the buses they drive. I doubt that even most religions that condemn homosexual acts would really require that an adherent not drive the bus under these circumstances.

Of course, a driver's particular religious faith may call her not to facilitate or promote in any way behavior regarded as sinful by her religion. Something like that may have been the case here. But again, I think that would be an exceptional position. Potential religious objectors must search their consciences in good faith to ask whether compliance (in this case, driving the bus to which you're assigned) really would violate a religious command to the contrary or whether doing so would simply make them uncomfortable. A policy of accommodation cannot work if objectors insist on a right to be made comfortable. Our society is much too diverse, religiously and otherwise, for that.

Keeping the culture war at a manageable level of conflict requires both sides to make some sacrifices. The state should accommodate religious objectors where the cost of doing so is small. But religious objectors should accommodate state interests where doing so is permissible, and does little more than make them uncomfortable. I am not sure either side is capable of this sort of self-restraint. So many people seem to want to turn up the volume and temperature by using every confrontation as a chance to accuse the other side of prejudice and bad faith. It doesn't have to be that way.

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Three days ago, I posted about a decision of Minneapolis transit officials to accommodate a bus driver's religious objection to driving a bus with an external ad for a local gay magazine. Now transit authorities have partially reversed themselves. From the AP:

Metro Transit said Friday that it inadvertently sent the wrong message about tolerance in trying to accommodate a bus driver's religious objections to driving buses that carried gay-themed ads.

Metro Transit spokesman Bob Gibbons said the company made a temporary accommodation to the driver on Oct. 12, allowing her not [to] drive buses that carried an ad for Lavender, a local magazine aimed at the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community.

The ad showed the face of a young man with the slogan, "Unleash Your Inner Gay." Fifty buses carried it periodically.

The ad contract ran only through Oct. 18, Gibbons said, and buses no longer are carrying the ads.

However, in reviewing the issue, Gibbons said the company likely would not make the same decision again.

"We are not persuaded that advertising, per se, infringes on religious practices and would be reluctant to make similar accommodations in the future," Gibbons said. . . .

"We deeply regret any impressions of intolerance," Gibbons said in a written statement. "Metro Transit employs and serves a diverse population, and we do our best to be respectful of all views." . . .

There are a couple of interesting things about this development.

First, transit authorities have apparently decided that driving a bus with an ad of this sort probably doesn't really violate any religious commands to the contrary. As I suggested in my last post on this issue, it's probably true that very few religions — even ones that strongly object to homosexual acts — would really command an adherent not to drive a bus under these circumstances.

Announcing a general policy of reassigning drivers would invite a problem: drivers who are simply uncomfortable with certain ads will (either mistakenly or dishonestly) label their objections "religious" and demand reassignment. This problem is especially great when it comes to anything gay-related because many people still have a gut-level "ick" reaction to homosexuality. Moreover, if challenged, they vaguely attribute this reaction to religious teachings.

I'd rather not have transit authorities closely examining religious doctrines. But by saying they would "be reluctant" to grant the accommodation in the future, transit authorities leave open the door to a possible accommodation in isolated cases while signaling their skepticism about such claims in a way that may (1) dissuade impostors and (2) cause sincere religious objectors to examine more closely their own religious scruples before requesting an accommodation.

Second, I'm more skeptical of transit officials' "diversity" and "tolerance" rationales for the decision. As is common, they appear to use this sort of language primarily to mean respect for persons based on things like race, sex, and sexual orientation. That's a fine principle. If transit authorities had accommodated a driver's religious objections to homosexuality by removing the gay-themed ads or permitting a driver to refuse entry to homosexual riders, that would be a very different case.

But why doesn't "respect for all views" include those of religious dissenters from majoritarian values? Here, by hypothesis, we can accommodate a single religious objector at no cost to anyone — not to bus riders, not to advertisers, not to other employees, and not to the transit authority. The only thing that's lost to us is the satisfaction of knowing that this religious dissenter from our values has been made to heel. I'm not sure this satisfaction is all that different in form from the old rationale for sodomy laws, under which the state enforced the nosy preferences of the moral majority even though it could show no appreciable harm to anyone from the activity prohibited. It shows no intolerance of gay people to accommodate sincere religious objectors where the accommodation will cause no harm; on the contrary, it shows tolerance for religious diversity.

Note that the controversy is not necessarily over. The ads run periodically and will probably run again sometime next year.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. More on that Minneapolis bus driver:
  2. Another religious accommodation controversy in Minneapolis: